From a prison cell

In a recent book, The Power of Silence, Graham Turner tells the story of Ian Sutherland, sentenced to life imprisonment for a particularly horrific murder. One day in prison he picks up a book which keeps mentioning the Buddha. He begins to read more – and eventually learns that there is Buddhist monastery not far away. He gets in touch and one of the monks comes to visit him, as a result of which he begins to meditate daily.

Within a month he has stopped smoking and taking drugs, but it is a struggle trying to meditate. Silence does not exist in prison. During the day there is the constant Boom! Boom! of dance music, doors banging, keys jangling, staff shouting, bells going off when a fight breaks out … Even at two in the morning conventional silence does not exist.

Yet he perseveres, and slowly he becomes conscious of something positive happening inside him. ‘The ego is mighty,’ he says, ‘but I have a sense of what Buddhists call my inner self beginning to come to the surface, like a light shining through a window. The best way I can explain what I am trying to do in silent meditation is this: The sun, which is our inner being, our true self, is always shining, but for the moment there may be a cloud covering it. When you meditate you start to brush those clouds away. It’s like a war going on, and it’s going on even now. Every day is a battle. Sometimes the ego wins, sometimes my inner self. A few times I have almost thrown in the towel.’

With all the ups and downs Turner asks what, for him, has been the value of meditation. Sutherland replies, ‘The first thing is that I now accept that what’s happened in my life is down to me and nobody else. Before I could blame everything on other people – my mother didn’t love me enough and so on. It was always someone else’s fault. And the second thing is that I now know that there is a purpose to my life, which is to be the best possible human being I can be, and to treat everyone as I would want to be treated myself. I am facing up to things for the first time in my life. The mind stops, all thought ceases and you’re at one with God, the Great Spirit, or the Buddha.

‘It’s like the seed which lies within us. All we can do with that seed is plant it, water it, perhaps put a fence around it. For the rest, we have to rely on grace – and that is what meditation can help you find. This is the best thing I have ever done in my life.’


2 thoughts on “From a prison cell”

  1. Yes. Very helpful This adds more, builds on to what has been written. I like the image of the self coming to the surface.

    And I am coming to know, for some the cloud cover is heavy; brushing away is hard. I think the heaviness comes from the circumstances, certainly, but also from the person and that person’s particular persona, character and resolve of will as given one. We all rise or don’t rise above circumstances differently a factor both our nature and nurture; it’s not just the circumstances. Even so the circumstances weigh heavily. Some difficult circumstances, only a few can rise above the circumstances enough to escape them. Mr. Sutherland was blessed.

    Mr. Sutherland is right we cannot manage our lives by blaming others. In your previously quoted poem by Mary Oliver, we can only save our own lives. Circumstances are what they are. We are what we are. Our life is what it is. How do we manage that? How do we live with value and purpose? What do we make of where we are standing? That I think is one of the great strengths of meditation: to be. I am not who I am right now except for ALL of what has come before, pleasant and hard both.

    Often, if not always, we cannot make better of our nature and our circumstances alone. If I am to be responsible, I am also to be in need of the affirmation of others, and for those living with difficult conditions and histories, a lot of help from others. As I do not live by blaming others, so I do not live by excusing myself from responsibility for others. However, as Mr. Sutherland found, it seems that attending fully to one’s life, living life authentically, also leads one to feel open to the whole world. When in a meditative mind, I feel then more than anytime or way, that I am of the world, and in love with the world, and that in some way the world is me. By the nature of the meditative experience, I find myself and find in me a profound caring for the world.

    While others, or circumstances may not be held responsible for my life, they may should be held accountable. That way, by holding others accountable, the others are responsible for their behaviour.Especially for children. While we cannot live by blaming the parent, the influence of the parent is so great on a child, that parental actions need to be held to account. Forgiveness, I think, isn’t so much about dismissing one’s behaviour as it is accounting for it, and then forgiving it. It is saving our life.

    I just want to add that when I look at my comments, I seem to be writing with a detached logic, but truly I am experiencing these blogs in a soulful way. I am using them in my good counsel.They touch me in exactly the place I need to see more clearly. The Oliver poem has been my meditation for the last two days, its depth and beauty working on me every moment I spend with it. While my mind may take pleasure, and even need, analysis and order, my spirit, too, for that, cries out in joy, I live in awe and respond in worship for this gift, as Mary Oliver wrote, of striding deeper and deeper into the world.

  2. Dear James

    How can I get in contact with you? I am Headmaster of St James Senior Boys in London and wonder if you would be able to visit. I knew Kathleen Raine well.

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